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May 27, 2004

Driving in Tehran, Part III - Some Stories and Observations
Guest Author: Ramin Kamal

Right of Way!I've been sitting on these stories, hoping that some sort of unifying theme would emerge from them. I didn't really find one (I'm feeling lazy), so I'll just present these as a random collection of incidents.

Dad Gets Busted

Hah! It had to happen eventually. Dad had been showing off too much, flaunting his disdain for traffic laws at every opportunity. His favourite was driving the wrong way up a one-way street as a shortcut to his preferred parking spot (also illegal).

Of course, it had to end some time. One day, as we were driving up towards the parking spot, an officer in green flagged us down. He was a nice enough man: after exchanging pleasantries with Dad and talking about the weather, he wrote us a ticket.

I looked at the ticket. It was for only ten thousand Rials! That's about two Canadian dollars. I thought to myself, "No wonder nobody obeys the laws! The penalties are insignificant!" The highest fine that was listed on the ticket was for eight dollars. The penalties are so small that everyone would rather pay these fines once in a while than not be able to drive the wrong way up one-way streets.

However, I soon found out what the real penalty was. To pay the fine we had to go to the bank and get the old red-tape run-around for about an hour before we were able to pay the fine. Eek. Punishment through inconvenience.

Pushing the Envelope

Do you know what a roundabout is? We don't have these in Canada, but Iran is full of them: they are the poor man's traffic light. Rather than building intersections with expensive and fallible traffic light systems, most Iranian intersections have a large circular island in the middle. Traffic flows around this island in a counter-clockwise direction, entering and leaving on what amount to off-ramps and on-ramps. It's a system that works remarkably well, although with all the merging of traffic I think that everyone's heart rate goes up a bit. This is especially true for the freeway roundabouts where you have to negotiate three lanes of traffic rushing around at 80 km/h.

There was one time when we were in a taxi, driving into a roundabout from the West and leaving it from the North. Now, rather than going counter-clockwise around the roundabout 270 degrees like normal people do, our driver decided to take a shortcut. Once off the on-ramp, he turned around, facing the rest of the traffic, and went 90 degrees clockwise, honking furiously at anyone who got in his way! Aaaaaaaaah!

What will they think of next? Can this idea be pushed any further? Why, yes, of course. For example, in Canada, if you miss your regular off-ramp on the highway, you resign yourself to wasting ten minutes driving to the next off ramp, getting off the highway, and returning to catch the off-ramp in the opposite lanes. Not so in Iran. The solution that you can probably guess people use is the following: they stop, put their car in reverse, and go back to the off-ramp. That's exactly what most people do, and it saves them lots of time.

But one day, when we were driving along a particularly crowded highway, I was witness to a strange variation on this behaviour. A driver who had missed his off-ramp stopped his car and started driving backwards. However, because it was so crowded, it quickly became clear that his efforts would be in vain. So what did he do? He drove forward, then turned around 180 degrees and onto the on-ramp leading from the highway he had missed! The highway had concrete dividers, for crying out loud! That means that once on the highway, he would have to drive against the traffic until he reached the previous on-ramp, and drive off that.

What insanity!

Beginning to Drive in Iran

I was tired of being a passenger and was annoyed that I was missing out on the joys of driving in Iran. Surely I had some contributions to make to this art form! So, when we were driving home from Shomal* and Dad pulled over to take a five-minute nap, I insisted that I drive.

Keyvan, Dad's friend, protested, saying that I shouldn't drive without an Iranian license. "Bah!" I replied, "I'm planning on breaking ten laws! What difference is one more law going to make?" I was right, of course - it made no difference at all.

I had a blast driving home along the twisting two-lane highway, overtaking all sorts of slower vehicles. I don't think I was taking any unnecessary risks, but since the others didn't know anything about my driving, they nervously second-guessed everything I did. Glancing over at Dad, I saw that he was hyper-alert and that taking a nap was the last thing on his mind. He kept pressing on the imaginary brakes on the passenger side.

Oooee. It was fun. I even got to drive through the city and got us all safely home. Afterwards, when somebody asked Dad how my driving was, his reply was, "I'm scared when Ramin is driving." I can think of no higher praise. It was proof that had graduated into Iranian driving.

Since then, I've driven on a regular basis and there have been no unusual incidents. I did look into the whole issue of Iranian driver's licenses, and it turns out that I can use my Ontario license for six months.

Pet Peeves

Unfortunately, SUV's (Sports Utility Vehicles for you non-North Americans - cars like Range Rovers) have become popular in Iran, though it's not yet as bad as in North America. SUV's in North America annoy me, because they're so big, ugly, and wasteful. Did you know that the average fuel mileage in the US is now at its lowest point since 1980? Pretty sad.

Here in Iran, at least there is no shortage of oil, and gas is inexpensive at ten cents a litre (38 cents per US gallon). Incidentally, in Iran, the government sets the price of gas, once a year.

Iran is the land of the light and cheap car - most cars here would be considered compact or subcompact sedans in North America. Now go and throw a bunch of these SUV's into the mix, and all those beautiful traffic patterns are destroyed. You can no longer squeeze four lanes of cars into three lanes. The big ugly SUV's ruin everything. Grrr.

Mobile phones are also not uncommon, but Iranians seem to have the sense to not use them while driving. I guess there's something to be said for driving conditions that demand your whole attention all the time.

Crazy intersections

One day, I was taking a taxi ride with my sister, Sarah, to a museum when I had my strangest traffic experience. We were part of a large group of cars that arrived at a red light. The cars had already squeezed four lanes worth of cars into the three lanes that were marked for us. We were about ten rows back from the intersection and it looked like we might not pass the intersection with the next green light.

I don't think that there exists a taxi driver in the world that doesn't get fidgety in this situation. The difference is that in most countries, that's all the taxi drivers do: they fidget. What did our taxi driver do about it? He dashed across the divider line and into one of the empty lanes belonging to oncoming traffic! He had made a temporary fifth lane for us! Within moments, a pile of other cars had followed his example, filling out the fifth lane.

This seemed like a brilliant stroke of genius - until the guys at the other side of the intersection did the same thing. Nature loves symmetry!

So now, in a total of six lanes marked on the road, we had five lanes of eastbound cars facing five lanes of Westbound cars, a red traffic light the only thing holding them from rushing headlong towards each other. I don't remember ever before wishing so fervently that my traffic light stays red.

Too soon, the light turned green. Our taxi driver floored the gas pedal, scrambling for the tiny empty space to the right on other side of the intersection. Unfortunately, this strategy doesn't work very well when everyone has the same thought. Once more I reflected on the beautiful and tragic symmetry we were about to experience!

Fortunately for me and Sarah, all the cars braked in time. The resulting gridlock (the word has new meaning for me) took a long time to untangle, but untangle it did, and we continued our journey unharmed, though with a few more grey hairs.

After most such incidents, I find myself reflecting on the differences between the attitudes of drivers in Canada and Iran. I'm not sure where, other than Canada, I would have to go to find a greater contrast with the driving in Iran. In Canada, it's as if it's in our blood to follow the rules to the best of our ability. We're quite proud of it.

However, foreigners who've visited Canada seem to view it as a National Character Flaw. We are, it seems, quite intolerant of any deviance from the straight and narrow. "How dare you impede my right of way? Don't you know the rules?" That seems to be our response to any violation of traffic rules that slows us down. We are, in fact, hardly ever ready for the unexpected and loathe slowing down, whereas in Iran, the unexpected is the norm and taken in stride. Sometimes it seems like the Iranian way is more flexible, responsive, and natural.

Then again, maybe the accident statistics speak for themselves.

Closing Thoughts

Overall, I've really enjoyed the driving experience in Iran. I'm still amazed that a system like this can work as well as it does. I'm glad, though, that I haven't fully graduated from the School of Tehrani Driving. Ask me sometime about the rules of engagement if you're frustrated and feel like picking a verbal or, heaven forbid, physical fight. I look forward to further education in the future.

Editorial Footnotes:
* Shomal is the Farsi word for north. Northern Iran, which is bounded by the Caspian sea from north and the Alborz mountains in south, is a very popular holiday destination for many Iranians with its beautiful European-like terrain and weather.

mat at June 9, 2004 08:23 PM [permalink]:

I thoroughly enjoyed your stories. So much so, i sent the link to my friends and family. Your writing style fits the stories well with truth, however comical at the same time.
Send us more stories about Iran - you paint the picture excellently.

Thank you.

Saeed at June 11, 2004 10:38 AM [permalink]:

"Traffic experts had previously been puzzled as to how Bogotá, with 7 million inhabitants and more than a million private cars, is so jam-free. The answer now seems that Bogotáns are simply more aggressive than their counterparts in London, New York and other huge metropolises."

A Nature description of this work: